1890 – 1959
Gertrud Bodenwieser belonged to the first generation of modern dancers in Vienna. Initially influenced by Isadora Duncan and François Delsarte and later by Emile Jacques Dalcroze, Bess Mensendieck and Rudolf von Laban, she developed her own style of modern Ausdruckstanz (expressionist dance). This “Bodenwieser style,” often referred to as “specifically Viennese,” stresses the close connection between dance and music as well as a fluidity of movement reminiscent of the Sezessionismus movement. In her work, Bodenwieser employed sculptural forms and tableaux vivants to express visionary content. As she described it, “The new dance … wishes to embrace all the human feelings, not only harmony, lightness and charm but also passionate desire, immense fervor, lust, domination, fear and frustration, dissonance and uproar. The new dance does not content itself with being enchanting and entertaining only; it wishes to be stirring, exciting and thought-provoking” (Cuckson, 79).
Gertrud Bodenwieser was born in Vienna on February 3, 1890, into the haute-bourgeois, assimilated Jewish Bondi family. Her father Theodor Bondi, a stockbroker, was married to Maria. Gertrud grew up together with her older sister in a fairly isolated fashion, educated privately by French and German governesses. In accord with the social conventions of the time, she took dance lessons with Kurt Godlewsky from about 1905 to 1910, but then determined to continue in this art form. Out of consideration for her parents she changed her name to Bodenwieser.
In May, 1919, at the age of twenty-nine, she gave her first public solo performance in the French Room of the Konzerthaus, in the framework of the exhibition of the “New Union for Painting, Graphics and Plastic Art.” In an evening entitled “Dances-Grotesque” she performed Silhouette, Hysteria, Spanish Dance, Cakewalk, Burletta and Grotesques. This diversity of subject matter, which included impressionist works, dances derived from popular culture, Freudian themes, burlesque and the parodic, was to characterize much of her oeuvre. The critic Alfons Torok saw in her work a quality of all contemporary art by young artists: “The unconditional rejection of everything handed down and the honest search for new, purely personal expressive values” (Torok, 1919). Working in her first production with a range of modern and romantic composers including Sergey Rachmaninov, Claude Debussy, Max Reger and Anton Rubinstein, it was evident that for her music and dance were inextricably intertwined. This was a key difference between her work and that of Wigman and Laban, for whom Absolute Dance meant a liberation from the requirement of music.
On June 27, 1920, Gertrud Bodenwieser married Friedrich Rosenthal, the director of the Burgtheater, who was her artistic collaborator. From her own studio, she began establishing the Bodenwieser Dance Group (Tanzgruppe Bodenwieser, 1923–1938). In 1924 she created “Dämon Maschine” (The Demon Machine), one of her major early pieces, which she performed with great success for thirty years. One critic commented: “Are we in an engine room? Are we in a concert hall? One forgets this and experiences only the all-enveloping dashing to pieces” (Dunlop-MacTavish).
Bodenwieser began working in theater in 1924, appearing in Franziske by Frank Wedekind (1864–1918) under the direction of Karlheinz Martin. Max Reinhardt, who engaged the troupe for his 1927 production of The Miracle, continued to work with Bodenwieser. After her first international successes (Grand Prix at the Riunione Internationale della Danza, Florence, 1931; Bronze medal at the Concours International de la Danse, Paris, 1932), she taught dance and gymnastics at the Max Reinhardt Seminar in Vienna from 1932 to 1934. In that year the Bodenwieser Group became the first modern European dance ensemble to be invited to tour Japan. Her most significant works were her dance dramas, large group ensemble works with clearly defined themes and narrative structures.
After her last performance in Vienna on January 8, 1938 Gertrud Bodenwieser was forced to give up the professorship in choreography at the Vienna State Academy of Music and Dramatic Art which she had held since 1928. In this position she had developed an innovative training and education program in modern dance which included gymnastics, improvisation, art history, dance history and design. In the context of Ausdruckstanz, she was termed “the most important and active personality produced by Vienna in this field” (Kügler). After fleeing to France with her husband, she left in 1939 to tour Colombia for almost a year with some of the members of her group, including her pianist, Marcel Lorber, before migrating with them to Australia via New Zealand. She never again saw her husband. A series of letters between Bodenwieser and the Red Cross detail how he had been captured by the Germans in France and in 1942 transferred to Auschwitz, where he was murdered.
Bodenwieser arrived in Sydney, Australia in 1939 and opened a dance studio which revolutionized the country’s modern dance. She established the Bodenwieser Viennese Ballet and was once again acclaimed “the prophet of living dance.” From 1940 to 1954 the Ballet toured Australian cities and towns, as well as visiting New Zealand, South Africa, Rhodesia and India. Lucifer’s Masks, created in Vienna in 1936 under the impressions of increasing National-Socialism, remained in her repertoire. When it was first performed the critic of the newspaper Der Wiener Tag (June 21, 1936, trans. Emmy Taussig) had written:
Die Mesken Luzifer portrays on stage what Kant calls the radical-evil, in a threefold appearance, as Intrigue, Terror and Hate. One feels actually transported into our own times. Lies, slander, oppression, terror, hate and viciousness explode from this group of young dancers. Magnificent as the movement is, suddenly reinforced by the sharp cries of their voices, as opposing groups hurl at each other their lashing slogans: “Rasse gegen Rasse!” [race against race], “Masse gegen Masse!” [mass against mass], “Klasse gegen Klasse!” [class against class]. Magnificent, too, when one group of human beings again and again subjugates the other, ad infinitum, until at the end, Lucifer puts his foot on the necks of all.
Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid (1950), probably her last public performance, was documented in a telecast presented by Australian television in 1958.
During her career, Bodenwieser choreographed approximately three hundred dance works, including dance dramas and comedies, group dances and solo dances, as well as dances for operettas and plays. Over one hundred of these were composed in Australia, where Bodenwieser played a significant role in the development of modern dance. Her studio in Sydney helped to produce some of Australia’s best choreographers and dancers, including Keith Bain, Margaret Chapple and Shona Dunlop-MacTavish. Bodenwieser also worked with the New South Wales Art Council and the Mobile Theatre Unit. She died of a heart attack in Sydney on November 10, 1959.
The New Dance. With introduction by Marie Cuckson. Vaucluse, Sydney: 1960.
Bleier Brody, Agnes. “Gertrud Bodenwieser und der neue Tanz.” In Tanz—20 Jahrhundert in Wien (exhibition catalog). Vienna: 1979, 53–58.
Dunlop-MacTavish, Shona. An Ecstasy of Purpose: The Life and Art of Gertrud Bodenwieser. Dunedin, New Zealand: 1987.
Torok, Alfons. “Dance Evenings.” Der Merker (June 11, 1919), Vienna.
Vernon Warren and Charles Warren, eds. Gertrud Bodenwieser and Vienna’s Contribution to Ausdruckstanz. Amsterdam: 1999.
Bodenwieser Archives. Vaucluse, Sydney, Australia; Hilverding Collection, Österreischische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna.
Lexikon Jüdische Frauen. Edited by Jutta Dick and Marina Sassenberg.